Conservatives don’t all think alike; some of them hate Trump; some don’t see Liberals as evil (some do.) Some are deeply weird.
It is a sure sign of the political divisiveness in America that these observations may well seem like revelations to some theatergoers attending Will Arbury’s new play at Playwrights Horizons. “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” allows us to eavesdrop on what feel like astute and authentic conversations at a gathering of former classmates at a conservative Catholic college in Wyoming. Terrifically acted and intellectually stimulating, “Heroes” is also eerie, at times confusing, too long and too dark. And I mean dark literally; it takes place during nighttime in the dimly lit backyard of Justin’s house.
Justin (Jeb Kreager) is the first of the characters we see in what counts as a wordless prologue. He sits in the dark, until suddenly he shoots his rifle. He disappears off-stage, and comes back carrying a deer carcass. We see him start to cut it open, then blackout (they surely couldn’t afford a different deer carcass to carve every night.) Then the carcass is gone and we see him trying to wipe the blood.
There are two other nearly surreal moments in the play (which I won’t tell you about), but otherwise “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is talk, talk, talk.
Soon we learn that there’s been a party in Justin’s house in which some 15 alumni have returned to the small town to celebrate the inauguration of their old beloved teacher Gina as the college’s .president.
But by the time the play has begun, everybody has left besides Emily ( Julia McDermott), Gina’s daughter, who suffers from some chronic illness. and two former students whom Emily calls “the weird lingerers.” These are Kevin (John Zdrojeski) whom Emily describes as “so wildly confused,” and Teresa ( Zoë Winters) whom Emily describes as “so cold… like she’s switched off a part of herself. “
All four have a history together, which dribbles out in conversation between two or three at a time, and seeps inevitably and dramatically into the present. All four are captivating in their individual particularities and peculiarities.
In a long scene between Kevin and Teresa in which they catch up with one another about what’s happened in the seven years since they graduated, Kevin tells her he wants to have a big conversation with her. She resists. He insists. She finally says: “Whenever we have a big conversation, it’s really nice for a while, but it always ends with you saying you should become a priest, and then crying about how you’d be a bad priest, and then crying about how much you want a girlfriend.”
Part of the appeal of these characters is how familiar they feel — people in their late twenties and thirties starting to know what they want and struggling to get there. (The acting — too good and palpable to single out any one performance — also wins us over.) But the four classmates, and Gina when she arrives late in the play, are also people who pride themselves on their conservative views.
It’s intriguing to see how much “conservative views” can differ in complicated ways.
Teresa has actually moved to New York – South Slope, Brooklyn, even — but she’s not of New York; she works as a conservative columnist, and sees herself as a warrior of the right. She’s a Trump supporter, and believes there is a war coming to America.
Gina (Michele Pawk), their teacher, was a member of the far-right John Birch Society, has a poster of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign slogan hanging in her office (“In your heart, you know he’s right.”), gave a fundraiser for Pat Buchanan in 1996. Yet she says: “I hate Trump. I hated Obama. But really, no one since Bush Senior had much regard for the constitution…I just don’t trust any of these men – they’re all on their third wives.”
Gina and Teresa get into a heated argument, and they are not the only ones.
Emily insists on seeing the good in all people, including a friend of hers who works for Planned Parenthood, which leads to an unusual debate about abortion in which both sides believe it’s murder, but differ over how much compassion to have for the women, and whether or not it can be considered a Holocaust.
Justin, who’s a few years older than the other three, and works for the college tending to their horses, believes in separating from the (decadent) culture at large: “I want us to put our heads down, preserve our culture, and wait for the hedonists to eat themselves alive.” (This survivalist attitude perhaps explains the unmentioned deer shooting.) Kevin rejects “The Benedict Option” – which Kevin describes as “a book that says we’re not gonna win this thing and we should just retreat.” Kevin believes his mission is to be “in this world…Maybe I need to be in the den of lions, in order to really be the Catholic I was meant to be. Like there are some priests, like Jesuits, who thrive in that kind of environment. Ugh do I need to be a priest?”
Kevin’s insecurity and constant questioning of himself and the others adds a touch of comic relief into what at times is some pretty arcane theoretical/political/theological arguments. Even the title is steeped in esoterica. The title is based on a 1996 book, “The Fourth Turning” that posits there are four eras (or turnings) in modern history that repeat themselves in a never-ending cycle — High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis. Crisis turning is “right now,” Teresa says. “The national identity crisis caused by Obama. Liberals think it’s Trump. It’s the fight to save civilization.”
Heroes are born during an Unraveling and come of age during a Crisis, when they “fight bravely.”
All of this is difficult enough to pay attention to; it’s baffling to me why director Danya Taymor chose to distance us further from these conversations by keeping the stage so poorly lit – and why the play needed to run two hours without an intermission. I get how atmospheric it is, and maybe metaphoric. But It’s as if they were challenging us to struggle through all that’s off-putting, so that we can more fully understand the sacrifices the characters say they must make to stay true conservatives and Catholics.
There is an artfulness to Arbery’s play, which he is happy to explain in his note in the playbill. It’s a fugue, he tells us. He also establishes his expertise . “My parents teach at a school in Wyoming quite similar to the one in the play” – they had that Barry Goldwater poster, and held that fundraiser for Pat Buchanan. But he also establishes what sound like his liberal credentials: Arbery voted for Obama in 2008, he tells us, “the first time I was old enough to vote.” When he told his friends and family back home, they were incensed, one calling him an abortionist.
“Now I’m circling back,” he writes, trying to be impartial about these characters he knows so well, not sure he can be impartial, worried that his characters are too loveable…And you start to wonder whether he has modeled the character of constantly questioning Kevin on himself.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning
at Playwrights Horizons
Written by Will Arbery
Directed by Danya Taymor
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Sarafina Bush
Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd
Sound Design: Justin Ellington
Fight Direction: J. David Brimmer
Cast: Jeb Kreager as Justin, Julia McDermott as Emily, Michele Pawk as Gina, Zoë Winters as Teresa, John Zdrojeski as Kevin
Running time: Two hours, no intermission
Tickets: $49 – $89
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through October 27, 2019